21 and Over is an old familiar joke, coming from screenwriters Jon Lucas and Scott Moore (Ghosts of Girlfriends Past, The Hangover). Former BFFs Miller (Miles Teller) and Casey (Skylar Astin) get back together three years after graduating from high school, to celebrate their friend Jeff Chang (Justin Chon) turning 21 with a night of carousing and bar-hopping.
Jeff, it turns out, has an inner party animal waiting to break free, leaving him in a drunken stupor and his buddies realizing they have no clue where he lives. What follows is a predictable comedy of errors where Miller and Casey attempt to get their old pal home, encountering outlandish college students and getting caught up in wild escapades along the way. Meanwhile, a mostly-unconcious Jeff suffers from various forms of physical abuse and humiliation along the way (think Weekend at Bernie’s), as his friends slowly being to realize he’s suffering from serious personal issues – and so are they, as it turns out.
Lucas and Moore are directing their own script for the first time, after handing over their previous high-concept yuckfest scripts to more experienced filmmakers (that list includes Four Christmases and The Change-Up). However, the major problems in 21 and Over are still related to writing, as it lacks the idiosyncratic humor of The Hangover, the poignancy found in Superbad and social commentary (no, I’m not joking) from the Harold and Kumar movies. This flick lifts material directly from all of these superior raunchy comedies, but to diminished returns. Ultimately, what prevents the humor from becoming overly tedious is that Lucas and Moore partially tap into the insecurity and feelings of powerlessness driving the behavior onscreen (translation: this movie actually has some heart).
Teller was a supporting actor in Project X and the Footloose remake, but in 21 and Over he’s upgraded to leading status. He essentially plays a slightly older version of Jonah Hill’s Superbad character (and even has a voice that’s uncannily similar to Hill’s), but impresses by delivering a charismatic performance that doesn’t oversell the fact that his character’s behavior is all a defense mechanism for fears about being left behind by his higher-achieving bros. Astin (Pitch Perfect) is solid playing the foil to Teller, while Chon (Twilight) makes the most of a role where he spends 90% of the time either knocked out or running around inebriated.
The rest of the cast is take-it-or-leave-it. Quintuplets and 7th Heaven alum Sarah Wright (a.k.a. Jerry’s daughter on Parks and Recreation) plays Nicole, the generic love interest for Astin; fortunately, they have good screen chemistry, so their romance is believable enough for the film’s purposes. Meanwhile, Jonathan Keltz (Entourage) plays Wright’s hot-tempered cheerleader boyfriend – who winds up the butt of numerous physical comedy gags – and Francois Chau (sorta) riffs on his Lost role by playing Jeff’s authoritative father, Dr. Chang. The pair are not at all terrible in these roles, but there’s nothing satirically-biting or memorable about the caricatures they create, either. Samantha Futerman (Going the Distance) as Jeff’s foul-mouthed ex-neighbor and Russell Hodgkinson (Fat Kid Rules the World) as a seemingly homeless druggie (wink, wink), get an easy laugh for their cameos, but most of the other brief character appearances are duds.
In terms of direction, Lucas and Moore take a scattershot approach that succeeds and fails in equal measure. Certain scenes are structured as montages in a manner that makes sense, while others feel like awkward efforts to liven up the plot and create the illusion that what’s happening onscreen is more exhilarating and off-the-wall than it actually is (but not in a self-aware fashion). As you would expect, the plot is mostly a collection of episodic sitcom sequences, featuring wrathful sorority girls and partying college students (among other stock characters) – some of which border on being casually sexist and stereotypical. Fortunately, things never fully cross over into that awkward territory.
Tonal problems occasionally arise when 21 and Over shifts from madcap to sincere and saccharine, and then transitions right back to more comedic debauchery with nary a moment to spare. Similarly, while the main characters suffer their fair share of repercussions for the underhanded stunts they pull, it sometimes feels like they are let off the hook and able to resolve their problems too swiftly, resulting in little significant emotional impact (despite touching on heavy issues). What makes the inevitable third act payoff okay is that it solidifies the feeling that Lucas and Moore actually like and identify with the characters they’ve created, even after making them suffer greatly for the audience’s entertainment. The conclusion is satisfying enough, given what sort of movie this is.
It’s the good nature of 21 and Over that prevents it from being utterly forgettable. Lucas and Moore’s ‘Hangover for the college crowd’ won’t go down as generation-defining (a la Superbad and American Pie), but its target demographic should find something to laugh at. The same goes for certain older moviegoers who may even become nostalgic, wistfully recalling their own days running half (or fully) naked and drunk around a university campus.
Just don’t expect to remember much in the morning afterwards (sorry, couldn’t resist).
21 and Over is 93 minutes long and Rated R for crude and sexual content, pervasive language, some graphic nudity, drugs and drinking. Now playing in theaters.